By Barney Blakeney
The July 2 arrest of a 16-year-old Charleston youth illegally selling handmade Palmetto Roses has sparked protests and promises of conversations about the potential for entrepreneurship among Black youth. It is a conversation many say is long overdue.
A Charleston police officer assigned to the Market area of the historic district tried to arrest the youth for illegally selling the popular palmetto roses handcrafted from the fronds of palmetto trees. The city created a program that permits youths ages 9 to 16 to sell the roses either at the Charleston Aquarium, Waterfront Park or at the U.S. Customs House. Participants in the program wear a special shirt and carry a visible permit card. When the violator was approached he tried to run and the officer tried to stop him. The two got into a scuffle ending with the teen on top of the officer prompting citizens to intervene. Social media frenzy portrayed the incident as another struggle between Blacks and whites. Several groups joined to protest the incident Saturday.
The unemployment rate among Black youths ages 16-19 in the Charleston/North Charleston metropolitan area nearly doubles that among other ethnicities in the same age group. Louis Smith, founder of the Community Resource Center of Summerville, was among the organizers of Saturday’s protest rally. He said one of the biggest issues facing Black youth is the number of unemployed young people. Without the benefit of vocational skills formerly taught in neighborhood high schools, Black youths resort to activities like selling palmetto roses. He said such activities provide some economic acumen, but mainly help create minimum wage employees.
With the influx of new industries locating in abundance to the region youth apprenticeship opportunities are paramount for Black youths, he said. It must be noted that in 2018 Black community advocates are fighting for kids who sell palmetto roses. The community also must fight to develop avenues to job skills that allow Black youth to participate in the region’s growing workforce, he said.
“We have to change the paradigm. We will continue with the protest rallies at the Market, but we can’t stop at this level. We have to go to the corporations which should be developing programs for our kids, demand that our churches and other organization do their part and re-establish the “village” that ceased to exist as our communities were dissolved. Our children are being demonized and criminalized to create an underworld that fills the prisons. It’s been convenient to say what others are not doing, but our parents and community activists have to pick up the ball. The palmetto rose issue is only a small spot on the spectrum. We have to focus on the wider picture,” he added.
Ruth Jordan, Charleston Minority Business Enterprise Office manager said a task force is being created to address youth employment and minority business opportunities. The failure to do that in the past has resulted in missed opportunities, she said. Going forward the city will look at its departments to see how they can incorporate youth employment. But small businesses are the driving force of any community. The city will look to that sector to expand youth employment opportunities also, she said.